the split
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‘The Split’ is shaped by human vulnerability

Back in the day, I used to enjoy watching Casualty every Saturday evening on BBC1. A hospital drama set in A&E, it focussed on a range of individuals: experienced doctors, new trainees and patients with all manner of medical mishaps. What I always found clever about the programme was how the hardships and troubles facing the patients (who would only appear in that week’s episode) reflected the lives of the staff we saw every week. The advice doctors and nurses would offer patients, medical or personal, mirrored advice they themselves needed to take. I have found this to also be the case in the BBC series The Split, the second series of which commenced last week. The six part drama follows the lives of a family of divorce lawyers (or family lawyers, as they would prefer to be known). Main protagonist Hannah Stern (Nicola Walker) caused conflict in the first series by leaving the family law firm ‘Defoes’ to join the rival ‘Noble and Hale.’ The rifts between family members only grew from this opening act of betrayal. At times it felt like meetings with clients were simply gaps between family disputes that would inevitably create a climatic denouement. I was hugely excited for the new series, not least because the theme tune is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard.

Indeed, there was plenty of material left unresolved from the first series. It would have been a scandal for the BBC to cancel the show; there were too many loose ends that required tying up. I needed to see how the family came to terms with the death of Hannah’s estranged father Oscar Defoe (Anthony Head), a bitterly sad moment just as the family had been better getting to know one another. Series one also concluded with the revelation that Hannah had slept, and once planned to run away with, her former boyfriend Christie Carmichael (Barry Atsma) who, you guessed it, works at Noble and Hale. This, combined with Hannah’s husband Nathan Stern (Stephen Mangan) committing adultery via a dating website exclusively for affairs and the merger between Defoes and Noble and Hale meant series two had all the potential to match and even top the first one.

Her crafting of Hannah’s dual persona – acting both in a commanding way as a lawyer, and more indecisive as a wife, mother and sister – is a sight to behold

I’m pleased to say my hopes were met. The best part, as with all dramas and books I love, was the characterisation. All the characters seemed real, portraying their powers and vulnerabilities in equal measure. My mark of a fine actor is the belief they have lived their character’s life forever. This was certainly the case, most notably with Walker. Her crafting of Hannah’s dual persona – acting both in a commanding way as a lawyer, and more indecisive as a wife, mother and sister – is a sight to behold. Every character is struggling; every character is anything but perfect.

To me, it appeared all the characters had been written to experience a midlife crisis. They all faced a degree of existentialism as they try to find their purpose in busy, globalised London. Hannah faces an external conflict approaching love, more expected of her clients, through which male she wants in her life. On the one hand she can have Nathan, her husband and father of her three children. Or she can choose Christie, someone exciting and far more unpredictable. The series opens with her trying to have both: having her cake and eating it if you will. Meanwhile, sister Rose longs for a child with newly wed husband James (Rudi Dharmalingam), languishing from one job to another with little sense of meaning and direction. And that’s all before fellow sister Nina’s antics, her chronic dependency on alcohol to mask the void of her drifting, inconclusive life, eventually resorting to shoplifting. Their desperation for purpose and agency, and their failure to achieve it, parallels insecurities that will face us all.

Indeed, the structure of divorce law is defined by the break up of love, as contracts to break apart are negotiated, signed and agreed

Love is at the heart of The Split. Indeed, the structure of divorce law is defined by the break up of love, as contracts to break apart are negotiated, signed and agreed. But love goes beyond the printed words: it is something emotional, whether to partners, families, siblings or children. It cannot be properly measured, articulated or written down. The problem and conflict Hannah faces – between stability and adventure, routine and immersion – is perfectly understandable. She is so used to commanding expertise with regards to paperwork and legal terminology that dealing with her own, abstract relationships seems unnecessary and frightening. Suddenly she is not the reassuring lawyer but a confused, conflicted individual. But it is not something that can be put on the back-burner, for it comes to consume her every thought.

The stories of clients feature throughout the six part series, but never feel like anything more than side plots. At every episode’s heart is always the lawyers, specifically Hannah. More than anything else, it is their behaviour, attitudes and personality we are watching, in every episode and scene. Hannah deals with a client: famous TV star Fi Hanson (Donna Air) facing emotional and mental abuse from partner Richie Hanson (Doc Brown), a husband so disloyal and manipulative that he unashamedly engages in serial adultery. Repeatedly, Hannah emphasises the choice her client Fi must make, to leave her abusive husband despite all her initial instincts. Her client is, after much anguish and personal struggle, able to make the choice, allowing other women to come forward with their experiences of exploitation at Richie’s hands. The writing is eventually on the wall for him and, while the situation remains tricky for Fi, she at least has some closure. The same cannot be said for Hannah.

Running through every episode is Hannah’s attempts to confront her betrayal, both in her present affair with Christie but far more so in her plans to abandon Nathan the night before their wedding

The families all have an enviable level of wealth, living in luxurious homes, sending their kids to private school and wearing designer clothing. This further brings home the point that to be wealthy is not to ‘have it all’. The same trauma can be the case whatever one’s class position. While money offers the Sterns and Defoes freedom, it by no means brings happiness. Running through every episode is Hannah’s attempts to confront her betrayal, both in her present affair with Christie but far more so in her plans to abandon Nathan the night before their wedding. All the characters experience betrayal, whether betraying their own values or expressing insincerity towards others. In the end, The Split is not a drama about a family law firm but the fundamental characteristics that bind humans together – love, loyalty, trust, pain, temptation – and can so easily drive them apart.

Catch up with The Split now on BBC iPlayer

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